Twenty years of family, friends at Pepper Mill
Greg Turner has a good sense of the history of the building that houses The Pepper Mill Steak & Pasta House he has owned for the past two decades with his wife Lisa, even in some cases down to details like the colour of the paint that has covered its walls.
“This place, it was baby blue, all the walls,” he reminisced, remembering what the restaurant first looked like when he and Lisa began leasing it in 1998. “Can you imagine coming in here, from minus 30 outside to baby blue? It’d be like, you couldn’t warm up even if it was 90 degrees in here.”
Now, those baby blue walls are long painted over and people warm up at the Pepper Mill on a very regular basis, with longtime diners and those reading exceptional reviews online stopping in at the Hwy. 35 Carnarvon upscale family restaurant that just recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.
The original building permit sits behind the bar, showing the property once belonged to Sinc Russell in 1948, who listed it as a service station, dairy bar and appliance store. It was then owned by the Chambers family, when it was Carnarvon Marine, alongside a small snack bar. The Chambers sold the business to Lisa’s father, who owned it for a few years as Pawson Marine. In the ’80s, it was a very popular restaurant, and then a country club, where Lisa worked in her earlier years. Some readers might recall when the building was J-Kaloo’s, as well, before it was suggested Greg and Lisa give it a go.
“I was 26 and she was 24,” Greg remembered. He had cooked to put himself through post-secondary biology studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, while Lisa took culinary courses and worked in the business.
“She was just naturally good,” said Greg. “She managed a couple of different kitchens.”
The pair opened The Pepper Mill Steak & Pasta House on Jan. 22, 1999, with help from family and friends and the previous owners, all who Greg said helped make the restaurant what he and Lisa wanted it to be.
“It took about three weeks to get it ready to go, and then a week of food prep,” said Greg. “We didn’t advertise, to open. Everyone knew it was coming but they didn’t know when. We wanted the opening to be soft. I still have the receipts from the opening night, when we had 76 people for dinner. We routinely do 180 to 200 people a night, now. But back then, it was crazy. It was a bit of a scramble, but we made it through.”
Much has happened in 20 years at the Pepper Mill.
In 2006, Greg said the tornado at the end of July that “just about shut the county down,” struck only a month after they had put a generator in that would run the restaurant.
“So we were the only place open for like three days,” he said. “We’d never done this many people before. We [served] over 200 people a night for 13 days in a row. We would [serve] all the people off the street, and then all of the hydro workers would come in starting at 9:30 or 10 o’clock, and then we would cook for them until 11 or 12 o’clock. So that was an interesting time.”
In 2009, “of course right when the recession kicked in,” said Greg, he and Lisa tore down the house behind the restaurant and built a new one that was more comfortable for their family – their first boy was born in 2000, the second was born in 2002 and the third was born in 2003.
“So we had three boys under the age of four [at one point],” said Greg. “Not only are we doing this, but we’re raising them. They’re all now part of the staff. My oldest will be going to university in the fall.”
In 2014, major renovations were required.
“Remember you could smoke forever, right, so all the tracks for the [ceiling] weren’t white anymore, they were that kind of nicotine yellow.”
More efficient windows were added, and the bathroom and front space was worked on. That wasn’t the end of updates to be done though.
“Last year, we did the kitchen, put a new floor in and got some equipment, and thank God, because it’s been so busy now,” said Greg. “We put a new 10 burner double oven in. We do all of our pastas from scratch, nothing’s out of a pail … At any one time, you’ll have from six to 10 frying pans going, cooking things. So it’s … we used to do it with a six-burner, of which four worked.”
Despite changes to the building over the years, remarkably in an industry used to a high turnover, Pepper Mill staff celebrates longevity. The restaurant employs up to about 25 people, with six or seven people on the floor on a busy night, and six people in the kitchen.
“[Julie Chadwick] was here opening night, and she’s still here,” said Greg, of the longtime family friend.
Tobey Champ, who Greg worked with at McKecks in the ’90s, has been at the Pepper Mill for about 15 years. Jim Minto began as a dishwasher in high school and has been the restaurant’s sous-chef for years now. As Greg lists off names of past and present employees – sometimes entire families of kids –many have been part of the Pepper Mill family for well over a decade, or had started at the restaurant in entry-level roles and worked their way up.
“They’ve all been here for so long and we’re blessed,” he said. “We just find what works.”
Some longtime staff even began as babysitters for Greg and Lisa before taking a job at the restaurant.
“It’s a family,” he stressed. “Once you find people who you can depend on, you keep the morale going. You treat them with respect, and well and give them the things they need. You know, because everyone has a life outside of this … but you give them the things they need to succeed and it works.”
Besides a family atmosphere within staff, Greg and Lisa aim for consistency in food.
“Lisa and I have always wanted to have everyone to enjoy coming here, whether they work here or whether they’re coming to eat,” said Greg. “The most important thing we always said when we open is the food has to look and taste good, the service has to be really good, and the third thing is consistency.”
Their philosophy is working. Last weekend, Greg said it was “like summertime,” with 100 people visiting on Thursday and 180 people dining on Friday night.
“We’re not always perfect and it doesn’t always work out that way, but if we mess up we do our best to make it better,” said Greg. “Redo the whole thing. It’s a philosophy. You can go anywhere for a Bud Light. Anywhere for a Caesar. You can’t go anywhere for a good meal. That’s the way we’ve always looked at it.”
A good meal and an excellent Christmas is what Greg and Lisa have offered annually for the past 19 years to some local families. They don’t advertise the event, but families who have been invited to attend rave of the couple’s generosity and the spirit of the party.
“The inspiration for it was a dishwasher who worked for me one time,” said Greg. “It was Christmas, and I’ve always loved Christmas. It’s a great time. We do Christmas well with our families, and he said, ‘oh, I hate Christmas.’ I said, how could anyone hate Christmas? And then you find out, some things they’ve had to deal with or some things that happen around Christmas … who knows. But I never wanted to hear that. So I thought, maybe this is one thing we can do to help.”
Kids receive toys and families enjoy a good meal and a good time, while staff, Greg’s mom – and Santa Claus himself – volunteer time, suppliers donate some of the food, a musician plays the organ and volunteers drive families to the event to make the evening work.
“I don’t think anyone deserves notoriety for it,” said Greg. “It’s just something you should do. It’s a community thing, it’s not just Lisa and I.”
With the announcement of the 20th anniversary, the Pepper Mill’s social media page quickly received 240 responses and 76 congratulatory messages.
After 20 years, Greg focuses on the history of the business, the consistency of the quality of the food, and the family-like bond of everyone connected to the restaurant.
“That’s been the most important thing,” he said. “It has been my whole family and our friends, and our staff and their family and friends. That’s the most rewarding part about it.”